bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
God, I hadn't realized how much I missed Spider Jerusalem.

I first read Transmetropolitan in college, almost ten years ago now, during a blessed period of time where Donald Trump was just some buffoon on reality TV and was totally off the radar screen of people who don't watch reality TV, which just so happened to include me and literally everybody else I knew. That might have been the only plus of that time period, honestly—any hopey-changey goodfeels brought on by the impending end of the historically awful Bush administration were offset by it being precisely the time when the economy imploded. (More specifically, I think I read Transmet during the fall semester at the end of 2007, after the subprime loans had started crashing but before TARP was passed.)

Following the surprise election of the nuke-happy, gropey old toddler to the highest office in the land—helped along by Kremlin trollbots, a corrupt FBI (itself helped by the execrable Jason Chaffetz), thirty years of hysterical anti-Hillary Big Lie propaganda from the GOP because she dared support universal health insurance before it was cool, a comfortably useless Democratic establishment without a competent marketer in sight, and a useless clickbait-driven media ecosystem that on the whole displays editorial judgement so poor it would get kicked off the middle school yearbook staff—it seemed like time to revisit everyone's favorite foul-mouthed, drug-addled gonzo journalist and see how prescient the series really was.

The result, so far, is that it's depressingly prescient. There are a handful of things in it that come off as now being weirdly old-fashioned—cash tollbooths with humans working in them, which are rapidly on their way out in the real world, or the fact that Jerusalem can live off of only writing one column a week, even if he is a celebrity—but overall, we do really seem to be just further along the trajectories Ellis identified in 1998 when it was first published: Increased corruption, sham democracy, advertisements and screens everywhere, cities overcrowded to the point where they can't ever stop being filthy no matter how fancy and overdeveloped they get; high-tech luxuries existing alongside widespread poverty; an exhausted, frenzied populace overstimulated into gullibility and complacency; and, of course, power-hungry scam artists taking advantage of all the generalized confusion and disorder at every turn. It's actually quite shocking to realize it was written almost twenty years ago—if it had been published last week, I'm pretty sure the only thing that would need to change would be the tollbooth worker.

In the middle of it all is social justice rogue Spider Jerusalem, returned to the city after hiding in the mountains for five years because his creditors finally found him, a heavily tattooed agent of chaos in colorfully mismatched camera-spectacles (the machine that made them is also on drugs).  Spider bullies his way back into a writing gig with his old editor, a weekly column called I Hate It Here, where he dedicates himself afflicting the comfortable but doesn't really have the time or sensitivity to comfort the afflicted. He does, however, tell their stories, raging on behalf of the dispossessed in time-honored angry lefty fashion, calling out the dirty secrets of the powerful and generally using his boundless capacity for assholery to troll for good.

Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street covers Spider's return from the mountain and his break back into the spotlight as he covers a riot and uncovers the deliberate setup behind the violence. It bears an unsettling resemblance to some of the accounts of outbreaks of police violence at protests we've been hearing about over the past few years—peaceful protests where some small event (or unproven reports of one) are used as a pretext for attack by an overmilitarized police force, although these haven't ended in actual mass slaughter in the U.S. (so far, at least). The group targeted in this riot is a bunch of people spliced with alien DNA, known as transients, who are basically kind of a cult led by a Charles Manson-esque figure called Fred Christ. Christ leads the group to "secede," declaring the destitute handful of city blocks they've been sidelined into to be its own country, building half-assed barricades around the transient's ghetto and cutting off the utilities that their altered bodies don't need in order to drive out any remaining full humans. They're portrayed as a bunch of gullible but harmless weirdos (except for Fred Christ, who is a creeper), so of course the state brings down the hammer on them for this hopelessly ineffectual act of treason.

With a busy, expressive drawing style and lots of creative swearing, this high-octane nightmare-fueled story nonetheless displays a greatly hopeful reminder of what journalism could and should be. Today's Beltway media would do well to take note: With the incoming administration, all journalists are going to have to become muckraking investigative pains in the ass, or they can go find another profession. Put on your stompy boots and remember: You don't have to put up with this shabby crap! You're a journalist!

 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So it turns out that just because I don't work at a Big Six publishing company, it doesn't mean I can't steal any good books from work.

When my old editor-in-chief left, he found an ARC while cleaning out his desk that someone had given us as a review copy back when it was first published. The book was Hit Me!: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers by Danielle Gomes and Jay Benincasa. The ARC is dated May 2013, making this review three years late, so I don't know if I'm supposed to still send the publisher two copies like they asked for. What's the usual practice for this sort of thing? Anyway, publishers, if you wanna send review copies of gambling-related books to Casino City, we'll be more timely in the future, because I'm here now.

Hit Me! follows the story of Dennis Gomes, a young accountant with an unshakable sense of justice who is tasked with heading up and reforming the Nevada Gaming Control Board's Audit Division in 1970's Las Vegas. Most of the casinos in Vegas at this time were owned by Mafia groups--usually multiple outfits, as joint ventures--who massively underreported revenues and used the skimmed funds to finance all sorts of other mob operations back in their home territories. A pretty huge proportion of Nevada's political and law enforcement apparatus was also involved, either actively in the mobs' pockets or just unwilling to cross them. This lack of institutional support--plus the occasional active betrayal from inside the house--makes Gomes's job very, very difficult at times.

While the word "audit" may conjure up for some readers a rather unsexy image of some desk workers poring over spreadsheets, rest assured that this is a full-on gangster story, with all the clandestine meetings, undercover surveillance and raiding rooms full of money at gunpoint that that implies. The cast of characters is also pretty loud, on the cop side as well as the mobster side. Fans of the movie Casino will be able to spot some familiar material in the second half of the book as Gomes starts going after the Stardust's Frank Rosenthal and Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. (The first half of the book I'm not sure about 'cause I didn't see Casino until this Friday, because I am the worst gangster movie fan ever.)

The biggest strength of this book is that it is very, very detailed--not in a lengthy way, but entire conversations are reconstructed verbatim, accompanied by vivid sights and sounds and smells until you feel you might as well be reading a trashy noir novel. Some of this is because the Audit Division kept extraordinarily detailed notes, and some is apparently because Gomes had an excellent memory, but I'm sure a bunch of it is just because some of this shit is so crazy you could never forget it. Gomes makes a relatable enough viewpoint character most of the time; mostly he comes off as very committed to driving the mob out of Vegas and very frustrated when he can't, which is pretty hard to take issue with. You get a glimpse of a little more of a weird dude right at the beginning and right at the end, but for the bulk of the book he's all Secret Agent Man all the time.

I don't know if this is something they may have included in the final printing, but my biggest complaint about this ARC was its lack of photographs. I want some pictures! Mugshots, crime scenes, awful '70s fashion, pics of the tacky old casinos that were there before the tacky current ones. I mean, this should be obvious. The ARC doesn't even identify whose photos are being used on the cover.

Overall, though, this is a high-adrenaline true crime tale, and I especially recommend reading it while drinking wine in the bathtub.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I read Lyndsay Faye's The Fatal Flame in about a day, which is pretty much the exact same thing I did with both of the first two books in this series, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret.

The title of this one is a bit more literal than the first two--the book is about fire. Much of the series has already been about fire: Timothy Wilde's parents died in one; his larger-than-life older brother Valentine is a firefighter; and, of course, he got half his face burned off at the beginning of Book 1. As a predictable consequence, Timothy Wilde is terrified of fire.

So it's only fitting that the final mystery in the series would be an arson case.

At least one thread in the plot seems deceptively simple: When sleazy robber baron industrialist and hella corrupt Democratic Party alderman Robert Symmes reports the arson to Timothy and Valentine, he also hands them a convincing suspect pretty immediately: a women's labor rights activist whom he had fired after an unsuccessful strike. He also seems to have proof in the form of creepy threatening letters that Sally Woods, the activist in question (who lives in a greenhouse with a printing press and wears pants and is generally awesome) had sent him.

Obviously, it's not going to be that simple.

For starters, when Robert Symmes asks Valentine to investigate the arson, he pisses Valentine off so badly that Valentine decides to run against him for Alderman, which upsets nearly everybody because of a long-ass list of Tammany Hall-related Reasons. Like, Timothy isn't even the person who is the most pissed off about this--that would be Gentle Jim, Valentine's boyfriend. The circumstances under which Symmes pissed Valentine off are also ones that intersect with both Timothy's detective work and a lot of long-running personal and family issues for Valentine, who honestly seems to be in competition with Tim for which one of them can be the most messed up. (Or more likely, it is Tim that is in competition with Valentine.)

The resulting plotlines draw Tim--and us--deeper into the world of corrupt Tammany politics, and into the horrifically exploitative world of women's industrial labor in the mid-nineteenth century, including the prejudices endured by the white in-house factory girls, the abuses heaped upon the out-of-house freelance seamstresses (mostly immigrants), and the even more horrific abuses employed to divert immigrant/refugee women into the sex trade (this story takes place at the height of the Hunger, so: lots of very destitute Irish washing up in New York). There are good cops and bad cops and good corrupt politicians and bad corrupt politicians, and while I usually found it pretty easy to slate characters into Awesome Characters and Characters I Want To Punch Up The Bracket, in the actual situations on the ground Timothy doesn't always know who's a "good guy" and who's a "bad guy" (except Alderman Symmes, where the only question is just HOW reprehensible is he really) (answer: TOTALLY REPREHENSIBLE), and winds up in all sorts of awkward situations like "working with his nemesis Silkie Marsh" and, as previously mentioned, "trying to solve a crime on behalf of Alderman Symmes."

Some readers have apparently complained that there is not enough Valentine, probably because they want the book to be all Valentine all the time, which is understandable enough. Valentine Wilde is both the hero this version of New York City needs and that it deserves. Timothy is not very good at heroing, which is what makes him such an excellent actual protagonist. But Valentine is totally big on heroing, doing ALL THE DRUGS and banging ALL THE LADIES (AND SOME OF THE DUDES TOO) (MOSTLY JIM) and speechifying ALL THE RABBLE-ROUSING SPEECHES and dressing ridiculously and running into fires and slamming rapists' heads through walls and basically being a Big Damn Hero and also entertainingly batshit. His and Timothy's relationship continues to be a thing of beauty to read, meaning they fight even worse than me and my brother Timothy ever did--which is sayin' something, but I don't think Tim and I have ever devolved into a giant screaming match about how much we hate each other in front of extremely important political personages, at least not as adults. This Tim and Valentine will have giant I-hate-you screaming matches at any time in front of any person, about literally anything, from Valentine's sex life to why Timothy is short. All these topics eventually end up illuminating something about their extremely complicated relationship, because fiction is supposed to have less pointlessness in it than real life.

Anyway, if the book were all Valentine all the time, we also wouldn't get as much of everyone else--not Bird Daly, on her way to becoming a teenager; Elena Boehm, whose accent gets more pronounced every book for some reason I still haven't figured out; Dunla Duffy, an immigrant seamstress whose half-simple Gaelic poeticism makes getting information out of her a whole new mystery plotline in itself; Mercy Underhill, back in New York and with something unidentifiably wrong going on; Tim's squad of Irish roundsmen buddies, including the one who falls in love with a police-hating immigrant woman because she nearly shot him; Gentle Jim Playfair, with whom Tim begins building a real friendship independent of Valentine; pants-wearing activist Sally Woods; the fictionalized version of George Washington Matsell, first head of the NYPD; or spectacles-wearing wannabe-dandy newsboy Ninepin and his crew (but mostly Ninepin)--even the bad guys, like Grand Bitch Silkie Marsh and Alderman Robert "That Guy" Symmes, are worth every minute of their time on the page. Usually in a book this big there's something that I figure could have been edited down, even if I don't personally mind, but with Faye's stuff I need every single interaction between every single character that takes place. All I need is for someone to have an asshole cat and I might have actually died of awesome casting.

Despite all the screaming and arson and oppressed laborers (and an ACTUAL TARRING AND FEATHERING OMG), much of this book is still funny. Partly this is due to Timothy's entertaining internal narration -- he is very clever when he is not being dense as a brick--and a big chunk of it is due to his wacky pseudodetective sidekick, Mr. Jakob Piest, a Dutch policeman with a talent for "finding things." But the funniest part of the book is Timothy voting for the first time in his life, which doesn't sound all that exciting until you get up close and personal with just how absurdistly corrupt the Tammany Hall voting machine was at that time. And how terribly loud the "dandy" fashions of the era were. Apparently, an orange cravat and getting completely shitfaced were mandatory for voting in this time period.

As always, the flash patter remains one of my singularly favorite aspects of the book, but I really have to take a step back and admire how seamlessly this thieves' cant fits into the rest of the worldbuilding, with different characters' use of and reactions to it informing their already rich characterization. This New York is pretty hardcore awful, but it's not a one-dimensional pseudo-deep grimdark -- it's as rich and thrilling and satisfyingly devourable as a Guinness chocolate cake.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I didn’t get much of anything done today, because I spent basically the whole day on the couch with a cup of coffee and Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, the sequel to her awesome historical mystery The Gods of Gotham.

Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-officer Timothy Wilde, younger brother of the larger-than-life Democratic machine member Valentine Wilde, as he deals with the psychological fallout of having half his face burned off in a fire and solves extremely sordid crimes. These crimes are not particularly “set against a backdrop” of mid-nineteenth-century New York as they are thoroughly woven within it. Where the first book’s plotlines grew out of the lurid, sordid contemporary social problems of child prostitution, body-stealing, and anti-Irish sentiment, the plots of Seven for a Secret grow directly out of the odious practice of Southern “fugitive slave catchers” kidnapping free blacks and selling them down South. (There was a certain Oscar-winning movie made about this two years ago, and excerpts from Solomon Northup’s memoir make up a good portion of the epigraphs in this book.) Chimney-sweeping, which was a thoroughly horrific industry, also makes several appearances. And we get to see a lot more of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, as Timothy’s investigations into the murder of one Lucy Adams—the secret colored wife of a prominent Democratic politician—bring him closer and closer into Party politics.

Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him.  While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.

Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.

On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.

Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Those who know me know I read some pretty morbid stuff, both fiction and nonfiction. This is why one of my friends saw fit to lend me her copy of Jessica Snyder Sachs' Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death.
I fear my reputation may be more hardcore than I actually am, though, for I definitely had to stop eating at several points during this book, and I love to eat when I read.
This book presents a short but, as far as I can tell, fairly comprehensive overview of the measures by which scientists, medical examiners, and other people in the death business have tried to determine time of death. It begins with short histories of the three "clocks" that medical examiners use in the immediate postmortem period--rigor mortis, livor mortis, and algor mortis--and all the ways in which they can be unreliable. The book then moves into the mid- and later twentieth century and the development of forensic entomology--the study of all the bugs that feed on corpses, and their life cycles and migration patterns and such, in order to determine time of death by assessing what bugs are on a corpse and what stage of their life cycle they are in. This part of the book is FANTASTICALLY gross, full of descriptions of roiling masses of maggots and buzzing swarms of blow flies. The entomologists interviewed for the piece all seem like really smart, interesting characters, but the descriptions of some of the research they did--especially that conducted at "the Body Farm"--and the cases they helped solve are really kind of stomach-churning. I usually like to put in one or two interesting tidbits I learned when I'm reviewing nonfiction books, but in this case I feel that maybe I shouldn't.
I think the maggots also got to me a bit more than other gross stuff gets to me because they always made me remember that time I came home from being gone for the weekend and one of my idiot roommates in Somerville had thrown meat in the garbage and left it there for a few days, so then when I went to throw something away, the kitchen garbage was a giant roiling mass of maggots. THAT WAS A GREAT SURPRISE. Kiddos, if you throw any kind of organic waste into your kitchen garbage, empty it frequently, even if it isn't full.
After all the bug stuff the book moves on into forensics and plant studies, in which ecologists try to identify the time of death of a corpse by the state of the plants immediately surrounding (especially "crushed under" or "growing over") it. This part of the book had the most fun, non-stomach-turning, Sherlock Homes-y bits in it, as usually the local flora of an area was already being studied as part of general ecological field work, and the forensic application was mostly about matching up the clues to determine, for example, what year a rope was tied around a tree branch.
After this section we get back into the realm of gross with a lot of stuff about bacterial studies and "drip zones," which is fancy science talk for "where a dead body's juices sink into the ground." This is apparently still a baby science, or at least it was when this book was published, but it's racked up a couple of interesting cases.
Overall this is an A+ book for anyone who likes gruesome murdery things to test how much they can handle.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The elevator pitch for Elizabeth Bear’s new novel Karen Memory is colorful enough that you can pretty much be certain that if you like the elevator pitch, you will like the book, and if you don’t, you won’t. The elevator pitch is: Heroic prostitutes versus disaster capitalists in the steampunk Old West.

I was pretty much sold at that point, and I am happy report that Karen Memory is just what you’d want from a pitch like that, with added awesomeness besides. This includes a fictional appearance by real-life historical badass U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and his giant mustache.

I’ll be frank: I have enjoyed a fair number of stories that are absolute trashy messes, because they are trashy mess hodgepodges of stuff I like, and I probably would have still liked Karen Memory well enough if it were that. All the same, that is not the case here: This is a really solid story. It’s got strong and unashamed dime-novel elements, but it all ties together into a coherent, well-paced, thrilling narrative that is chock-full of awesome things and they all make total sense.

It’s a first-person narrative that does well the main thing a first-person narrative has to do well, which is: the voice is fabulous. Karen’s been taught “proper” grammar as part of her genteel parlor-girling duties, but the narration is in her regular nineteenth-century Old West working-class reads-a-lot-of-dime-store-novels voice, and it’s great—it’s fun and colorful and folksy and smart, and Karen’s a great one for sly observations and over-the-top similes and you can generally tell she’s got her roots in a good old playful Irish storytelling tradition. She says “could of” and “knowed” and she’s not one whit the less smart for it. She’s also totally adorable in her developing feelings for Priya, an Indian girl who’s managed to escape the cribhouses of the story’s villain, abusive pimp Peter Bantle.

Priya’s also great—a budding mad scientist with phenomenal language-learning skills who wears pants and is even more awkward about feelings than Karen. In fact, the cast of characters surrounding Karen is almost exclusively made of thoroughly awesome people, except the people who are such utter terrible people that you viscerally want to punch them in the face with their own fists, which does still make them great character. The cast at Madame Damnable’s consists of a diverse crowd of women (and one dude—the house bouncer, a gay Black man named Crispin), including the inestimable Miss Francina, a transwoman who nobody is an asshole to about it (except Peter Bantle, of course), the human embodiment of solidarity and friendship, and all-around stellar character. The other girls come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and accents, and they each have their own characters, though we rarely learn their backstories. The rest of Rapid City seems to be populated with men ranging from the villainous to the sort of ineffectually decent enough, at least until Marshal Bass Reeves and his posseman, a Comanche dude named Tomoatooah, arrive. They kick ass, quietly and with great dignity and sometimes dynamite. The dynamite is less quiet, obviously.

On to the steampunky bits! The steampunky bits are a bit less goofy than much of the steampunk I’ve read so far, although I admit to only reading ridiculous steampunk. There are no flying whales. There is, however, a lot of really bizarre city infrastructure and some weirdo robot full-body sewing machines that sound more like Iron Man suits than anything else. Much of the plot hinges on a creepy technological advance that’s so far still secret but not implausible based on what tech they’ve already got, and a bit more plot hinges on a particularly souped-up submarine with tentacles, because what’s a steampunk story without at least one octopus-thing? At any rate, I’m wicked jealous of Karen’s sewing machine.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone who likes badass ladies, steampunk, stories about lesbians that aren’t tragic death coming-out novels, historical figures you haven’t learned of in school, seeing abusive assholes get what they deserve, the Old West, big diverse ensemble casts, luxuriant mustaches, characters exhibiting genre-savviness (the genre in question being dime novels), and fun.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Well, I feel like I have a lot of things to say about Half-Resurrection Blues, but chances are good I’ll forget to say some of them, or possibly I will not say them as fully as they are in my head. Sometimes you get a book where there’s just a lot going on. (Sometimes this is because it’s 1500 pages, but sometimes it’s not.)

Starting with the basics: Half-Resurrection Blues is the first novel in the Bone Street Rumba “spectral noir” or “ghost noir” urban fantasy series by Daniel José Older, who I’ve seen on a bunch of panels at Readercon and Arisia, where he was always a kickass panelist. He has opinions on italicizing Spanish that I always think about whenever we have clients who are like “We’re trying to target a Hispanic market, also, italicize any term in Spanish.” He also answers all my bullshit tweets which is (a) good author marketing branding practice stuff and (b) a sign that his fanbase isn’t big enough, so go buy his book. He was also nice enough to sign my copy at Arisia so nyah nyah.

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We’ll get to the ugly little fucker on the exercise bike in a bit.

So “ghost noir” turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin: It’s noir, all lyric description of gritty city streets (in this case, Brooklyn) and characters smoking a lot and doing shots because they’re in such a manly bad mood and thinking about sex and having tragic buried backstories and stuff. It’s also got ghosts. Our gruff damaged protagonist is a “half-resurrected” (meaning he died but has mysteriously come mostway back to life, no one knows how) special agent for the Council of the Dead. His name is Carlos Delacruz and he figures he’s Puerto Rican and he doesn’t know anything of his former life. Mostly he skulks around keeping shit-stirring ghosts in line and drinking rum with some of his ghost agent bros and making fun of hipsters in his inner monologue and reading, which sounds like a pretty good life for a noir protagonist. But then the plot shows up in the form of another half-resurrected guy—the first one Carlos has ever seen—who wants to bring a bunch of college bros into the Underworld, and Carlos has to kill him, and then everything gets complicated. Not least because Carlos immediately develops a ginormous crush on a photograph of the now-dead half-resurrected guy’s sister, except that he’s just killed her brother, so you can imagine how well that’s going to go.

The other immediate problem is the sudden infestation of a bunch of soul-tearingly irritating (literally) ugly little demon things called ngks, which apparently look like tiny grinning toads riding tiny stationary bikes. Somehow they are connected to whatever terrible plan involved the college bros, and Carlos and his ghost cop buddies have to set about trying to figure out and dismantle an increasingly labyrinthine situation set up by some ancient weirdo called Sarco that manages to involve (and by involve I mean screw over) pretty much everyone we’re introduced to in the entire book, as is right and proper noir/hardboiled plotting. I don’t want to talk more about the plot because spoilers.

Possibly my favorite thing about this book is the voice. It’s a first-person POV, as is also only right and proper, and man, does Carlos have certain aspects of sounding like Noir-y Protagonist Man down pat. He swears a lot and he bounces back and forth between the lyrical descriptive thing and the blunt, matter-of-fact hardboiled thing accompanied by cynical inner monologue about everybody. But while Carlos’ voice and characterization is unapologetically working within a certain tradition, he doesn’t sound like a Philip Marlowe ripoff. He’s more modern and more Puerto Rican, obviously, and the Brooklyn he moves in is a modern Brooklyn, full of communities of color getting slowly edged out by annoying white hipsters and rich people, which is precisely what’s happening in Brooklyn, from all reports. I’m wildly unqualified to have any opinions on the authenticity of the use of Spanish in this book because obviously the author is actually Hispanic and I am an Irish-American living in a mostly white section of Boston, but from some recent reports of People Having Opinions About Spanish In Fiction, I am going to say that it’s really not that difficult to read, guys, even if you don’t speak Spanish. I did not even have to use the Google machine once. Stylistically I think it lends a sense of place and a sense of specificity— you don’t feel like you’re in Anycity USA, in the I Guess People Live Here Quarter where people speak Ninth Grade Textbook English—but whether it’s accurate is up to people who have been to Brooklyn more than twice. The language overall is very playful and colloquial and makes you want to read it all out loud just for the fun of it.

Additionally, but no less importantly than any of the stuff to do with race, class, or identity, is that this book is funny. Dry cynical wisecracking is a time-honored part of noir, obviously, but the humor in this book runs much goofier than that sometimes, because why not. Carlos’ super surly noir man persona not infrequently gives way to a sort of flaily haplessness when either shit gets truly bizarre (see: demons on tiny bikes) or when he’s attempting to put together sentences about Sasha, our maybe-femme-fatale love-interest lady. There are also a handful of memorable puns, the aforementioned ridiculous ngk bikes (which are never really explained), and a ghost that shows up and says “Schmloooo” a lot during a very important and suspenseful following-people scene, apparently just to ruin the atmosphere. It could easily have not worked, but it does.

My biggest criticism of the book: It is pretty dudely. There are a handful of pretty cool but still pretty minor female characters, a secondary character who is a female house ghost, and Sasha. And I like Sasha, and I actually like most of the other female characters and think they all should totally get more page time in the sequel. Apparently the Council of the Dead and all its ghost cops have a serious gender imbalance in their line of work, though. Overall, though, considering the long history of surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny in the noir genre, Half-Resurrection Blues makes an excellent refuge for people who love gritty noiry mystery shit but are over the surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny.

Highly recommended for: Anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Chandler novel and been like “This would be perfect with a little less raging racism and sexism, and maybe some ghosts.” Fans of Castle who are always disappointed at the end of the Nerd Episodes when the vampires/zombies/ghosts/Victorian time travelers turn out not to be real. People who like urban fantasy but are bored of the same old Laurell K. Hamilton knockoff shit. Anyone who really appreciates good use of style and language in genre fiction.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a most timely boon from the library gods, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, became available just in time for a weekend bookended by four-hour bus rides between Boston and New York, where me and some of my lovely friendesses were going to check out some awesome Gothy New York things, like the “Death Becomes Her” Victorian mourning fashion exhibit at the Met, and a trendy foofy cocktail bar called Death & Co.

Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.

The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).

Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.

Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
People give and recommend books to me at a rate faster than I can read them, because I know many awesome people who are way nicer to me than I deserve, and the result is that it often takes me much longer than I would like to actually read books I acquire.

And then occasionally, someone gives me a book and it looks so awesome and timely and Relevant To My Interests that I actually drop everything and read it next. This is what happened when a friend gave me a paperback copy of Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, a historical fiction police procedural murder mystery set in 1845 New York. Two very important things happened in New York in 1845: one, the NYPD was formed, and two, the Irish potato famine  started, sending waves of destitute Irish flooding into the city, bringing all the misery and social upheaval of rural Ireland with them, and also typhus.

Our protagonist is a young guy named Timothy Wilde, who at the beginning of the story is doing well enough for himself as a bartender, saving up nearly enough money to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him and trying to not get too tangled up with his morphine-addicted firefighter brother Val, who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party machine. Tim and Val are orphans, as their parents had died in a house fire when they were kids, leaving both kids with all sorts of issues and the need to become independent very quickly. Unfortunately for Timothy, another fire incinerates his bar, his house, and all his money, which is how he ends up assigned to Ward Six—the slummiest ward, obviously—as one of the first “copper stars” of the NYPD.

Timothy spends some time breaking up fights and generally feeling miserable until he meets Bird Daly, a ten-year-old “kinchin-mab” (you’ll have to read to find out what that is) who leads him to a horrifying series of crimes involving dismembered children. Timothy, who cares about children more than a lot of people in the mid-nineteenth century, insists upon investigating, and follows a dangerous and convoluted path to the truth, uncovering a lot of sordid secrets about a lot of people along the way—including himself, his brother, and his beloved Mercy Underhill.

The aforementioned sordid secrets are all pulled off really well, both believable and shocking (and not repetitive), in part because the characterization in this book is brilliant. Timothy Wilde is very smart but he is often clueless about certain things that turn out to be rather important, and he’s often—but understandably—misled by his own misunderstandings of people. Valentine is a larger-than-life figure in every way, as you’d hope a guy with a name like “Valentine Wilde” would be, but is surprisingly complex. The secondary characters are hugely colorful, from the sickly children’s doctor Palsgrave to the brash, grown-up-too-fast newsboys. There is literally nobody in this book who is boring, not even Mercy Underhill.

To be frank, I expected Mercy to be boring, because she is the Designated Female Love Interest and they usually are. More so when they are dedicated charitable types—they always come off as squishy, bland, selfless constructs of idealized feminine nurturing whatever. Mercy is none of this. Mercy is a more fully realized character than our narrator has any idea of until about three-quarters of the way through the book. I would love to read a book that was entirely about Mercy Underhill.

One cool thing this book does is that each chapter starts off with a quotation—a standard enough practice these days, and one that I usually enjoy—but instead of being quotes from works of great literature or whatever, they’re all excerpts from letters and news reports and other “nonfiction” pieces of the time. A lot of them are really nasty anti-Catholic propaganda, which I think does a good job of underscoring the degree to which Catholics were considered Definitely Not Christians and to which the Irish were considered Definitely Not White People, which are both things that I think are hard for modern audiences to really grasp—I remember learning in school that yes, every new wave of European immigrants was met with fear and suspicion, but I always kind of assumed that it was only middling-level xenophobia, because the Irish and Italians and other “white ethnic” groups have since become so well-established. But no, the stuff people in the 1840s were saying about Catholics and about the Irish in particular reads today like complete batshit-crazy tin-hattery. Some of the other quotes are about things like the sanitary conditions of New York at the time and newspaper reports on the potato famine. Overall, they’re very well-chosen and really do manage to provide some background, and don’t seem tacked-on at all.

Since this is a big scary sprawling Gothic that took place at an extremely volatile time in New York’s history, I would issue a content/trigger warning for probably every single thing that could warrant a content warning, including graphic murder, child abuse, infanticide, child prostitution, attempted lynching, racism, use of the n-word, fire, gross medical stuff, and probably other things. It’s all handled well, I think, but this is definitely a book for morbid individuals with strong stomachs.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Ladies and gentlemen, it has finally happened. THE THING WE HAVE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR. Or at least that I have been waiting for. And some of my friends. Anyway, the third Lynburn Legacy book was released this Tuesday! *Kermit arm flail*

Since I am a very busy adult person these days, Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan took me two whole nights of staying up too late on a work night reading and drinking comforting drinks.

Unmade is not all pain and tears, of course. We have the specific strains of signature sass from all of our signature sassmasters, mainly Kami, Jon Glass, Rusty, Jared, and Angela. Holly gets a couple of good one-liners in there too, something that she is very proud of and which melted my cranky little heart. Jon Glass in particular sassed so sasstastically well that I was afraid he was going to get killed off. (And Lillian quoting Jon’s sass without comprehending why it’s funny… I was afraid I was going to get killed off!) At one point, Jon and Rusty sass each other and then the universe collapsed in upon itself. Jon Glass wins the Best Literary Dad award.

I also think I spotted a small shout-out to Mark Oshiro, who is reading Unmade starting quite shortly in October. (I have commissioned the first three chapters already.)

The jokes, of course, are but the lighter half of the experience that is any Sarah Rees Brennan book. A lot of the jokes that Kami tells (and sometimes that other people tell) are basically psychological defenses, refusing to take things seriously either out of insecurity or just because stuff has gotten too serious.

And stuff gets very, very serious indeed. The first two books had some pretty serious stuff in them, with murderous sorcerers taking over the town murdering people, and Kami’s parents’ marriage falling apart, and lots of emotional distress about nasty psychic tetherings, and also The Terribly Gothic Thing That Happens At The End. But this installment definitely turns it up to eleven, as a final installment should, and succeeded in me not being able to guess any plot twists ahead of time (except possibly “oh god, shit’s about to go up to eleven”). This is the bit where it gets hard to write a review because I don’t want to spoiler anybody even the tiniest bit—I just want to rock back and forth and cackle a lot. And so I will. *rocks back and forth* *cackles*

This book, like the rest of the series, continues to be deeply and fabulously informed by both the traditions of Gothic literature and the tradition of intrepid girl reporter/sleuth mysteries, often gleefully subverted. The story is still quite entertaining if you're not familiar with these tropes, but it has added layers of awesomeness if you’re a big enough genre nerd. It also explores a lot of issues of identity, sexuality, family, and fate, way the hell better than 99% of “literary” books about professors having midlife crises or whatever. It’s easy to write it off as fluff since it’s fast-paced and fun and full of ridiculous sarcasm and evil sorcerers, but there’s really quite a lot of depth and Exploring the Human Condition stuff buried in there. What does it mean to have a legacy, and what do you do if that legacy is fucking awful? Where is the line between honoring your cultural heritage and being goofy about it? (I am not the person to ask about this; this weekend I went to IFest Boston and bummed free cheese off of a Kerrygold marketer.) What price is it acceptable to pay to keep your loved ones safe? Serious questions here! Also boob jokes!

Obviously, I recommend the crap out of this book and the whole series to just about everybody.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So the third Lynburn Legacy book came out yesterday. And my book club read the first Lynburn Legacy book about a week ago. So of course it was the perfect time to reread the second one, Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold.

I read Untold when it came out last year and then I listened to Mark Oshiro read it and it is still just as fabulous and fun and heartbreaking the third time around. Jon Glass sassing Lillian Lynburn is right up there with Lady Bracknell saying "A handbag?" in a funny voice and Eliza Doolittle's perfectly enunciated "Not bloody likely!" in instantly classic comedy that will never not be funny (thus continuing in a century-plus long tradition in where there is nobody funnier than an Irish writer writing about British people). Now with more hindsight, there are some moments that take on additional significance than they did the first time around, particularly Lillian Lynburn claiming that she has no intention of ever running away to live in the tavern. Oh, Lillian. You always think your intentions are going to matter. (Intentions: not magic, even for sorcerers.)

If you never hear from me again, I am dead of Lynburns.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Many people have recommended China Miéville to me, generally with no explanation of what sort of stuff he writes or why I would be interested in it, and usually recommending Perdido Street Station specifically, which is about I have no idea whatsoever. But when one of my book clubs decided to read The City & The City, I figured I'd read it, both to see what it was all about and because I'd missed the last few of that book club.

The book club meeting was last Thursday, and I finished the book tonight, so it turns out I missed that book club meeting too. Oh well.

The reason this book took me goddamn forever to read is 100% due to crazy life hecticness that leaves me no time for reading, and not at all due to the book being not good. I know some people think it starts off slow, but I think it starts off a good kind of slow that I love in procedurals/mysteries/that sort of thing... jumping right into everything being totally batshit and continuing that way is good sometimes, but in a book where the worldbuilding is such a huge part of how the crime is put together, I like the sort of slow frustrated poking around in the beginning. It really picked up a lot at the end, and honestly, I thought the end was maybe even too rushed, so apparently I like slower-paced mysteries than the people in book club who were posting about it.

Our protagonist is a middle-aged homicide detective dude named Tyador Borlú, of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. Beszel is a vaguely Eastern European post-Soviet sort of city, located in the exact same spot as another city, called Ul Qoma. These cities operate simultaneously by splitting up the area, by street and patch of grass, and in some places "crosshatched," using a variety of colors and mannerisms and all sorts of little signifiers to keep them separate and different. Being in one city but crossing into, or even acknowledging stuff going on, in the other is called breaching, and will bring down a shadowy authority called Breach upon you, and then you may get disappeared. The plot happens when Borlú is called to investigate the murder of an unknown woman, and they finally figure out that she was actually from Ul Qoma. This leads first Borlú and his junior cop buddy, Corwi, and later Borlú and his Ul Qoman inspector partner, Dhatt, into a series of increasingly bizarre conspiracies involving political extremists of both the nationalist and unificationist varieties, a lot of confused archaeologists, and a discredited archaeological theory about a secret third city called Orciny.

As far as police procedurals go, this is SUPER POLICE PROCEDURAL-Y. There is lots of swearing and drinking coffee and complaining about paperwork, and everyone generally being gruff and hard-boiled and cranky. Female representation is fairly low, although not that bad by hard-boiled-detective-story standards--Corwi, the junior cop, is pretty badass when she's around, and never develops any tiresome romantic or sexual tension with Borlú, although she does get relegated to the background in the second half of the book when he goes over to Ul Qoma. The dead girl, obviously, is dead before the story even starts, but even so, she ends up being a pretty fascinating character. The other girl mixed up in this conspiracy also winds up dead, unfortunately. Borlú has two girlfriends, because of course he does, although they both very sensibly stay off-page for most of the book, which I am actually pretty OK with as it means the book features exactly zero sex scenes, which is something I think more non-children's-books should do. Overall it is still a pretty dude-heavy book. That is probably my biggest complaint about it, although it is a half-hearted complaint considering the number of dudely crime books where the women who are there are all terrible and oversexualized. So this is a non-gross dudely crime book, stuffed full of all the fun bits of crime-bookiness, like sharp punchy sentence fragments and always leaving it to the next chapter to tell you what it is that the narrator just figured out that is super important.

If you like police procedurals and noir and all that gritty shit, The City & the City is a fantastic addition to that genre, lovingly squishing in everything that makes a good police mystery a good police mystery into the weird knots and cracks of really fascinating "new weird" worldbuilding. If cranky foulmouthed homicide detectives aren't really your thing, though, I would probably not recommend it unless you're SUPER into urban worldbuilding to make up for it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.

Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.

Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.

There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.

The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.

One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.

On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.

Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.

Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)

Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.

Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.

In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So I reread Terrier last year and now I have just reread it again, this time with Mark Reads. And it was glorious! The Beka Cooper books may be my favorite Tortall subseries; despite being the most recent and therefore having the least place of nostalgia and importance to my childhood, they are super up my alley. Beka is the Tortall heroine I probably most relate to—she’s shy, she looks the most like me, she wears a lot of black, she is fifty million billion percent uncomfortable with flirting and gets hostile when people try to engage her in it, she has a tendency to take things super seriously, and she’s kind of morbid—although in her case, it’s because she’s able to hear the dead and is an informal priestess of the Black God, whereas I am just a regular sort of morbid gothy person. Also, I’m pretty sure I’d be a terrible police officer.

Like all the best crime novels, this story actually focuses on two cases, which are related. In a deviation from the usual formula, we actually find out how these cases are related pretty early on: the Shadow Snake, the child murderer who kidnaps small children to extort treasures from their families, has killed the grandson of Crookshank, a neighborhood crime lord who seems to be doing some sort of hidden mining operation involving fire opals, and killing off his diggers. It’s the murder of baby Rolond that kicks off investigations into both of these plotlines.

Beka Cooper is just starting out as a trainee member of the Provost’s Guard, which is basically the city watch/rudimentary police force. She is assigned to the two very best and most well-known and awesome pair of Dogs (as they call themselves) on the Evening Watch, which is the interesting one. These are Mattes Tunstall, the laid-back goofy one, and Clary Goodwin, the hardass sarcastic one. They are both great, great characters as well as great Dogs. Beka, having moved out of Lord Gershwin’s house where her family lives, is also living in her very first own apartment (which is apparently a one-bedroom, as there are other people in her lodging-house but they’re not in her “rooms”, which makes me super jealous! My first apartment was an eight-bedroom. I would love a one-person apartment. On the other hand, apparently medieval apartments do not have kitchens, which would make me sad). She makes FRIENDS!! with a bunch of other Puppies (trainee police) and also some “rushers” (persons on the other side of the law) from Scanra, who are all darlings despite two of them being professional killers. Rosto in particular is like a bizarre mashup of Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland in the terrible TMI movie and Jamie Campbell Bower as Slutty Playboy King Arthur in that terrible Camelot show. He’d definitely be bad news for Beka but as a character he’s hilarious and weird and there is lots of very bizarre UST between him and Beka and it’s just gloriously awkward.

The journal format seems to have bugged a lot of people, but I have a giant soft spot for journal format books. I also love the extra-old-fashioned language—I remember it throwing me off a bit the first time I read the book, but it’s just so fun! The swears in particular! Every time I read a Beka Cooper book I remember that I have to call more people terrible medieval names like “sarden cankerblossom” in real life instead of just being like “What an asshole” every time someone’s an asshole, but alas, I keep forgetting.

Reading this with the MR commentariat also meant I learned a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including recipes, and that twilsey is a real thing that you can make with fruit vinegar because fruit vinegars are also a real thing. (My foodieism needs serious work. I must become a proper foodie; they know how to have fun. Especially in Paris.) (By the way, does anyone know what you actually do with vanilla butter? I bought some…)
Thumbs up A+ would read again, I freaking love Tamora Pierce.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
My classics book club decided to dip into one of the genre classics for its meeting last weekend, which I did not attend, because I hadn’t finished the book. This is dumb, because we read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, which is less than 300 pages long.

It didn’t take me so long to finish Farewell, My Lovely because it was bad! Indeed, it was very good, despite the viewpoint character being an asshole. Farewell, My Lovely is told from the point of view of “hard-boiled” (i.e., casually sexist and racist, alcoholic, kind of an asshole but in a quietly grouchy way that makes you like him better than you should) private detective Philip Marlowe, a man who attracts getting concussions like honey attracts flies.

Oddly, Marlowe first gets enmeshed in plot not due to his actual occupation as a private investigator, but just from hanging around on the street somewhere, where he witnesses a gigantic dude named Malloy, on his first day out of prison after an eight-year stint for bank robbery, wander in a bar looking for his ex-girlfriend and promptly shoot the manager upon not finding her there. The police are cranky about Marlowe doing anything except be a witness, which he initially chafes at, but he is distracted in a timely fashion by being hired to be a bodyguard for a rich playboy named Lindsay Marriott, who is buying some jewels back from the thieves who took them in a stickup. Marlowe thinks something is weird but he doesn’t figure out what it is until he goes to the meeting and gets a concussion, and wakes up to find Marriott murdered.

From then on there is a lot of detective-ing and smoking of cigarettes and having people get mad at him, plus a few more concussions, and some dangerous attractive women, because of course. A lot of it is in really old-school gruff forties detective talk; most of the time I could figure out what they were talking about but about ten percent of it all I heard was “I heard you like noir, so I put some noir in your noir so you could noir while you noir” and then I had a mental image of Humphrey Bogart in a greatcoat and fedora.


You’re not giving me one more damn concussion until Lauren Bacall shows up, okey?

The book is written in first person POV, and the style is really interesting to me—mostly it trundles along in very stark and serviceable prose, sometimes almost police-report-y in its mundanity—“The man did thing X and then thing Y and then thing Z”—and then every now and again a darkly hilarious quip or beautifully apt metaphor suddenly pops up and socks you in the face. It’s a master class in understated, gruff sass.

For all the getting concussed and people dying, this isn’t really a very action-packed book. The middle is a bit, most notably featuring an exciting escape from being drugged and fraudulently imprisoned in a possibly-illegal private rehab clinic, but most of it is Marlowe and various cops and the aforementioned dangerous beautiful women standing around theorizing gruffly and drinking a lot, or questioning old ladies and drinking a lot, or philosophizing about bugs and drinking a lot.

With Marlowe trying to do two things in one novel—the first thing being to look for Malloy’s ex-girlfriend Velma while the cops look for Mallow, and the other is to figure out who killed Lindsay Marriott and why—it is somewhat inevitable that the two cases would wind up being connected, so I was not particularly shocked when this happened, but I admit to finding it quite satisfying and suspenseful figuring out how they were connected. It’s not at all obvious, but it doesn’t rely on hiding important stuff Marlowe knows from the reader until the reveal, either. So I feel it was a structurally sound mystery story.

I will admit that at no point did I get super excited about this book, even though I usually love noiry stuff with gangs and murders and mysteries and drinks, but this may have been a result of me having to read it in tiny drips and drabs of time around a massively increased work schedule and all the prep I needed to do before going to Paris tomorrow (eeeee!). It’s a sharp quiet dark little book about a sharp quiet dark little PI, and I’m glad I read it, although I wish I’d been able to give it the time I suspect it deserves.

 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
This past week I read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game along with the lovely Mark Reads community. Apparently this book was huge with people slightly older than me; I’m actually a bit surprised I’ve never heard of it, since I did go through a mystery phase in late elementary school (I spent many, many hours of fourth grade working out the puzzles in the Clue, Jr. books on the chalkboard).

The Westing Game is a murder mystery, although it is a bit iffy whether or not anyone has been murdered, which made me think of that odd old movie with Truman Capote, Murder by Death. Other than that… well, it’s not very much like Murder by Death at all, so ignore me.

Sam Westing is the prototypical American self-made man, the son of immigrants who worked himself up from a poor background to found and grow a multi-million-dollar paper products corporation. Nobody has seen him in years, ever since his terrible car accident. He apparently just stays in his mansion and leaves the running of the corporation to its chairman of the board, Julian Eastman.

Sunset Towers is a shiny new apartment building that has just been built within view of the Westing house. A bunch of carefully hand-selected people are invited to move into it. Shortly afterwards, Sam Westing is found dead in the Westing house, and sixteen people—most of the apartment denizens, plus the building’s doorman and its delivery boy—are invited to the Westing house and told they are all Sam Westing’s heirs. They are also told that one of them is responsible for Westing’s death, and whoever figures out who the murderer is will inherit the entire Westing fortune.

Cue a whole fabulous complex puzzle game, where the heirs are paired off and given cryptic clues, and much character building ensues as the heirs all try to find stuff out about each other. They are a very diverse bunch and they all (except one) have some sort of connection to Sam Westing. I’d give a rundown of the heirs but there are sixteen of them. (Turtle and Judge Ford are the best ones, though.)

This is a very difficult book to talk about without giving stuff away because the puzzle unfolds in very particular ways and I don’t want to discuss any of the clues! I will say that I did very abysmally at trying to guess what came next or what most of the clues meant, although I called a few key things shortly before they were revealed.

While I am always impressed at an intricate puzzley plot—mainly because I suck at coming up with them—the thing I am actually most impressed about in this book is how much character development there is. I mean, there are sixteen main characters, which is kind of a lot for a children’s book. (But it is the necessary amount because there is an ongoing theme about chess.) (Not in an Alice Through the Looking-Glass kind of way, though—this theme about chess makes sense.) But they all have their own story—and all of their stories tie into the Westing murder mystery game. They’ve all got some sort of personal problem, and all of them learn stuff through the game that helps them change their lives and start being happier and/or better people. (For some of the characters, their problem is basically that they are terrible shallow people. I am looking at you, Grace Windsor-Wexler, and also you, Dr. Denton Deere.) Somehow none of this is trite or twee; it all fits very neatly together but because it’s so complicated the neatness is very impressive rather than sounding like a cop-out. Overall it may be the happiest murder mystery I’ve ever read! It’s full of small children playing the stock market and possibly nobody being murdered at all.

Reading this with a group was extra fun; watching other people also fail at puzzling out the clues made me feel less silly (although probably the people who had read it before who were cackling at the rest of us had the most fun. They certainly sounded like it!) Also, one of the mods provided us with daily logic puzzles, of which I only did the last few because I came to the discussion a bit late.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
When I was at Readercon over the summer, I attended a panel where Scott Lynch introduced himself as the author of the “increasingly non-fictional” The Republic of Thieves. Knowing absolutely nothing about the Gentlemen Bastards series or the whole thing where the publication date of this book had been pushed back by a few years, I assumed that The Republic of Thieves must be some sort of political dystopian book about, like, corruption and oligarchy and banking fuckery, or something.

I was extremely confused when I first figured out what the Gentlemen Bastards series actually was.

Oddly enough, it turns out that The Republic of Thieves largely is about corruption and oligarchy and using massive amounts of money to illegally bork up elections, but simultaneously, that was the most wrong I was about anything that entire summer.

To start with the basics: The Republic of Thieves was published in October. It is the third book in the Gentlemen Bastards series. It is exactly 650 pages long; you could kill someone with the hardback. But you wouldn’t want to, because the cover art is too sumptuous to get blood on. Also, my copy is personalized and autographed, so nyah nyah.

The book opens with Locke dying a horrible bleedy death due to the poison he was given in Red Seas Under Red Skies, and he’s even more of a whiny, suicidally self-pitying mess than he was at the beginning of that book. Jean is again doing the If You Die I’ll Kill You Myself angry caregiver thing, and does a fabulous bit of psychoanalyzing Locke (he diagnoses him with a death wish, complete with awesome German-analogue name for it).

Locke is saved from his horrible bleedy death at the dramatic last minute by a Bondsmage of Karthain, one of the terrifyingly powerful band of sorcerers who have been messing with Locke and Jean ever since they mutilated the Falconer. This Bondsmage lets us know that there are political factions within the Bondsmage society, and she is of the team that has not been the one actively fucking with Locke and Jean. She is also the Falconer’s mother. She offers to unpoison Locke in exchange for Locke and Jean helping the political party backed by her faction win a majority of seats in the upcoming elections for the Konseil, Karthain’s governing body.

The opposing party also has a shady campaign advisor backed by the opposing faction of Bondsmagi. The shady campaign advisor turns out to be Sabetha Belacoros, former Gentleman Bastard (or Gentlewoman Bastard), the one and only lady Locke has ever had any sort of romantic interest in. She is also the only lady who has ever been able to trounce Locke in trickery, thieving, and general rogueishness—essentially, she is his Irene Adler, but with more swearing.

The book switches back and forth between this storyline and “Interludes” from Locke’s youth, mostly involving a summer when all the Bastards, now in their mid-teens, are sent off to an absolute clusterfuck of a theatrical company in Espara in order to learn ACTING. They put on a rather fabulous-sounding ancient Therin play called The Republic of Thieves, about a prince who is sent to put down a crime ring and instead falls star-crossedly in love with its fabulous lady-thief leader, Amadine the Queen of Shadows, and nearly everyone dies. During this summer, Locke and Sabetha have an awkward and bickering-filled start of a romance while working together to build like four different elaborate cons in order to keep the clusterfuck of an acting company operating.

As usual, all of the cons in both timelines are completely delightful—heavy on both fast-paced action and sneaky cleverness, with plentiful side helpings of wonderful swearing and insults. It’s one of those books where the main distraction is trying to stop and memorize lines for future use. (The second main distraction is stopping to drool over the food and then go get a snack and a beer.) (In completely unrelated news, I am mysteriously out of beer.) The entire GB lineup falls squarely into the Loveable Rogues category, but they are all distinct (and distinctly fun) characters.

Especially Sabetha.

I admit that, as we’ve only seen Sabetha as Locke’s Mysterious Red-Headed Fixation Object so far, she would turn out to be a flat or Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ish type of character. I should not have worried. Sabetha is a great character—she’s courageous, but entirely aware of (and, yes, afraid of) the dangers that she and the other Bastards face. Like Locke, she’s incredible clever and skilled in various kinds of shenaniganry, and, like Locke, this doesn’t prevent her from getting into real, interesting conflict and trouble. She’s much more socially aware than the rest of the Bastards in certain ways—she’s got an excellent grasp of the GB power dynamics, for example—and, as a result, she’s deeply cranky and suspicious of everyone and everything. She’s incredibly bitchy and difficult in a way that speaks to me on a deep level. Some of this has to do with what is basically exhausted cranky feminism; more personally, Sabetha is extremely choice- and agency-conscious and is extremely wary of ideals of fate, inevitability, destiny, etc. in romantic love. She is unwilling to get pinned down into a relationship just because That’s How It Works or The Universe Says So or whatever. The result of this is that she keeps running away from Locke and then I am sad for Locke because he is our awesome viewpoint character but at the same time I am like “I feel u, girl! Go have adventures!” Also, I think for a lot of properly socialized ladies, and particularly shy ones like me, there is an element of power fantasy in bitchy lady characters. The fantasy of freely telling people what you think of them without stopping to deflect and minimize conflict at every turn is an alluring one. (Witness the popularity of the Dowager Countess Grantham even amongst very liberal women, despite her being an archconservative entitled bigot.) (Plus, fantasizing about being an asshole is much less dangerous to one’s health than, say, dating the tactless dude assholes who say all the things you’re too nice to say to people.) (This is your official answer to Why Do Nice Girls Date Assholes. You can stop asking now.) ANYWAY, BACK TO SABETHA. She is not above using Feminine Wiles™ to con people if that’s how they would most effectively be conned, and she doesn’t apologize for it, but it’s not her only trick. She curses just as delightfully as the rest of the GBs. She can apparently rig an election like nobody’s business. You guys, I am like this close to making an Honest Book Copy submission for this book just because I think the current copy does a weaksauce job of wibbling about how awesome Sabetha is.

There is also a cute but sadly small cameo by Regal the ship’s cat, which was still enough for my own cat to develop an absolute vendetta against this book, and she spent the better part of three days constantly maneuvering to sit on the pages so I could not read them. I have pictures.

The book ends on the OMINOUS NOTE of a deeply dangerous and complete assbag of a character being not as dead or disempowered as we had previously thought, so I’m sure The Thorn of Emberlain will contain lots of excitement in the form of creepy painful things happening to Locke and everyone around him. CAN'T WAIT.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Not too long ago, I went into Porter Square Books with the intention of not necessarily buying any books (I was there for an Event and I was very, very broke), but then I saw a book that called to me, and seemed to have been written for the express purpose of tempting me into buying it no matter how much I couldn’t afford to. It was even in hardcover! A beautiful, creepy black hardcover.

The book was The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders.
The subtitle is a little misleading as it makes the book sound like it has a stronger thesis than it really does; it’s not really arguing a point so much as dumping lots of fun information on the reader. The book covers about fifty murders that took place in the UK in the nineteenth century. For each one, it describes the murder, gives some historical background about how it fits into general fears of the time or trends in murders (poison panic, burial-club panic, etc.), then discusses how the murder was dealt with in the, um, ‘nonfiction’ press, and lastly discusses instances in which the murder shows up in nineteenth century fiction. There is also some discussion of the development of the police, and particularly detectives, as a professional and cultural institution. The book’s thesis, essentially, is just that the Victorians were SUPER INTO  murder, and that the ways in which they were SUPER INTO murder laid the groundwork for modern crime entertainment like murder mystery novels and TV procedurals. I, for one, am willing to accept this argument as being pretty well supported.

I was already familiar with some of the issues discussed here; I had the good fortune to do a short unit on “sensation novels” in undergrad as part of a nineteenth-century British novel course, and a few years ago I read an excellent, in-depth book about the Road Hill House murder and early Scotland Yard, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. I also remember gawking over the Jack the Ripper crime scene photos at CrimeLibrary like a proper little babybat sometime in high school.

This book introduced me to so many more murders, though, including some really weird ones. I found it fascinating to compare which murders caught the public’s imagination, and which ones didn’t, even when it seemed like they should have—and I was particularly interested to see how the ones that did get turned into entertainment for mass consumption got written and rewritten, with the victims or, sometimes, the murderers getting cleaned up to be more sympathetic, class and political attitudes grafted on to the “narratives”, sometimes narratives being created nearly out of whole cloth from a handful of sensational details (Jack the Ripper may be the most egregious offender in this category), newspapers picking this side or that—the victim, the murderer, the detectives, the family, the press itself.

For me, most of the fun in this book comes from the excerpts of plays, newspaper articles, interviews, etc., particularly the really trashy ones. Trashy Victoriana is very, very trashy; in many cases, it is also quaint and badly spelled. Awkwardly scanned verse abounds (“We beat him dreadfully upon the floor,/We washed our hands in his crimson gore” –from a broadside reporting on murderess Maria Manning). There are a lot of awkward Victorian line drawings of dismemberments and public executions, which have to be seen to be believed. Judith Flanders has an excellent talent for summarizing penny-blood and melodrama plots in a sort of snarkily affectionate tone that makes me really want to read these pieces even though they are clearly laughably dreadful. (I am sure this is partly because I am the sort of person who just purchased a copy of Varney the Vampire.) Flanders is a social historian, and the weird historical tidbits she gives us paints a great picture of just how weird the Victorian era was—excerpts from Punch & Judy shows, magazine advertisements for arsenic soap, and the solidly shameless behavior of the highly respected Madame Tussaud’s waxworks company, who never met a piece of murder memorabilia they didn’t try to buy. I finished this book kind of wishing I could time-travel to the Victorian era but also being really glad I don’t live there, which is just as it should be.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in weird history or Gothic fiction.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Much like everyone else who has gone through the American school system in the past few decades, I have read Shirley Jackson’s famously creepy short story, The Lottery. I think The Lottery is one of those pieces that I had to read multiple times at different grade levels; however, I had never read anything else by Shirley Jackson, until now. In honor of it being Halloween, the latest book for my Classics book club was We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a short but exquisitely creepy novel about the last living members of a wealthy family, who live in a big house overlooking a small New England village.

Our narratrix in this novel is Mary Katherine Blackwood, generally known as Merricat, who is eighteen years old. The other two remaining members of her family are her older sister Constance, and her Uncle Julian. Uncle Julian is very sickly, having survived the poisoning that killed the rest of the family six years earlier. We discover, eventually, that Constance and Merricat were the only family members not poisoned, Constance because the poison was in the sugar, which she never used, and Merricat because she had been sent to her room without dinner.

When the story opens, the three of them have adapted to a very regimented and quiet life within the big Blackwood house. Merricat is the only one whoever leaves the property, going down to the village to shop on Tuesdays and Fridays. Merricat is also in charge of security, ensuring there are no holes in the fence keeping everyone else off their land, and performing a lot of odd magic rituals, mostly consisting of burying things, but sometimes including other superstitions such as breaking glass, nailing stuff to trees, and avoiding certain words. Merricat is a bit of an odd person, and her narration comes off as particularly odd because she is so matter-of-fact about things like her magic rituals, and her imaginings about living on the moon, and wishing people dead, which she does quite frequently. Constance never, ever leaves the property, or even goes into the front yard, sticking entirely inside the house and in its back gardens. This is because it was Constance who was accused, and then acquitted, of the poisoning of her family. Even though she was acquitted, most people still think Constance did it. (She didn’t.)

Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian’s idyllic and highly ritualized existence is interrupted by the arrival of their cousin Charles, who, as far as Merricat is concerned, disrupts everything. She continually refers to him as a ghost and a demon, and believes that he was able to enter the house because one of her magics failed, and she keeps attempting to do more magic to get him to leave. Charles is basically a normal guy, in all of the ways that cause him to be the most disruptive and displacing possible element in their household. In addition to taking up much of their father’s space (such as staying in his room and going through his things), Charles smokes constantly, gets angry at Merricat for burying things, is generally loud, and is somewhat obsessed with the amount of money they have in the house—mostly in the safe, but he also gets extremely agitated when he discovers that Merricat once buried a handful of silver dollars in the lawn. He gets angry at the general weirdness of the household, a lot, but refuses to leave, being committed to saving them from themselves and, rather transparently, to acquiring their money. Eventually, being essentially a symbol of great big messy dudely oafishness, he leaves his lit pipe unattended, and Merricat throws it into a wastepaper basket, which causes a fire. The fire succeeds in getting Charles out of the house, but not before the firemen show up, Uncle Julian dies, half the house burns down, and the townsfolk gleefully trash most of what is left.

Constance and Merricat, being proud and weird and now deeply regretting letting anybody into their sanctuary, retreat even further, building an even stranger and more secluded life within the two remaining rooms of the house, the kitchen and Uncle Julian’s room. The townspeople start leaving food at their door, apparently in penance for having trashed the place, and possibly because they seem to think that anyone strange enough to live in half a burned-down house is probably a witch or something, and, as far as Merricat is concerned, they are very happy.

Much of the creepiness in this story comes from Merricat’s bizarre narration, particularly once you begin to suspect—and finally find out—that it was actually Merricat who poisoned everyone, back when she was only twelve years old. Merricat is willful, stubborn, somewhat narcissistic, and will absolutely not have anything other than exactly as she would have it; at the same time, she is very disciplined, adhering to a long list of things that she is and is not allowed to do, plus engaging in endless rounds of exacting magic rituals. It’s never really clear if the magic is real or just something Merricat believes in. It’s also somewhat unclear if everyone else is quite as terrible as Merricat believes or if Merricat is just a really hostile person, especially when you consider that she is the sort of person who murdered almost her entire family for sending her to her room, but it’s very easy to believe her observations of people and generally be on her “side.”

While this book avoids many of the goofier elements that characterize so much Gothic fiction—and I say this as someone who adores Gothic fiction—it still fits itself firmly within the Gothic tradition, both by being extremely creepy and by focusing on very dark themes such as death and destruction and the decline of very rich families. Unlike most traditional Gothics, it is short and very tightly written, avoiding both sentimentality and overwrought vocabulary. The degree to which anything supernatural happens is unclear, being either little or none at all. There is also surprisingly little violence, but a heavy focus on domesticity and domestic ritual, particularly food. (Constance does all of the cooking; Merricat is “not allowed.”)

Constance, to me, is the most interesting character; while Merricat clearly adores Constance, Merricat is also 100% certain that she knows how they both best should live, and actively sabotages any attempts Constance might seem to be considering making to their lives. Merricat does not want Constance to go out into the village, which means, in practice, that she does not want Constance to stop being afraid to go out into the village. When Charles shows up and Constance starts having thoughts that perhaps Uncle Julian should be in a hospital and Merricat should be in school and Constance should leave the house ever, Merricat sees this as Charles’ demonic influence and redoubles her efforts to get him out of the house, and to show Constance that they ought to stay in the house. Merricat, in short, molds both of their lives to Merricat’s specific preferences, and rather than wondering for a minute if Constance is okay with that, seeks to make Constance okay with that, by proving that all the alternatives are intolerable mistakes. Merricat doesn’t seem to be aware of how manipulative and possessive she is, and seems to honestly believe that she is looking out for her sister. The book ends with Merricat telling Constance how happy they both are.

Charles is probably somewhat unfairly maligned in the story, seeing as he is a regular person and Merricat insists upon referring to him as a ghost and a demon; however, I admit that even without Merricat’s opinions, I really didn’t like him either; he falls into the role of Man of the House very easily, even though he is just a guest, and he makes no effort to try and figure out why they are so weird or what the culture of the house is, and as far as I am concerned that makes him rude and presumptuous.

The creepiest part of the book, I think, is how hard it is not to like Merricat, to sympathize with her and agree that all the people she thinks are terrible are terrible, and that they are being small-minded and rude for being hostile to her and Constance, and that it makes perfect sense to try and protect your house with magic and anyone who gets mad at you just because they don’t get it clearly deserves a bit of shaking up anyhow, and that it’s really invasive of people not to leave them alone all shut up in their weird house. Being able to make the reader sympathize with a murderer—and not any sort of tragic-backstory of justifiable-homicide sort of murderer; just the cold-blooded murder of her whole family, for petty and objectively stupid reasons—is evidence of the disturbing sort of genius of really, really great writers.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In preparation for the release of Republic of Thieves next week (OMG NEXT WEEK), and also to get my dear friend Josh to shut up and stop bugging me about it, I read Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, the sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read in August.

I liked The Lies of Locke Lamora quite a lot, but I think I like Red Seas Under Red Skies better. This is not necessarily because it’s a better work in any literary sort of way. It because Red Seas Under Red Skies is a lot like The Lies of Locke Lamora, except with more lady pirates, and more cats. I really don’t think there’s much more Relevant To My Interests a book can get. Maybe if one of the next GB books somehow manages to also be a Gothic novel? Help, now I’m distracting myself.

In Red Seas Under Red Skies, Locke and Jean, having barely escaped Camorr with their lives, have set up new identities and are peacefully working away at a long-term scheme to rob the shit out of the Sinspire, the most exclusive casino in Tal Verrar. The Sinspire is supposed to be uncheatable, a supposition which, of course, Locke and Jean take as a challenge. They are still being pursued by irate, entitled Bondsmagi, who are still all pissed off that Locke dared mutilate one of their members merely for killing four of Locke’s best friends. (Bondsmagi are assholes.) The Bondsmagi decide to fuck with Locke and Jean by tipping off Tal Verrari’s archon, Stragos, about their real identities. (Tal Verrar basically has two ruling branches of government—the Priori, which is a largely merchant-occupied city council, and the Archon, which is sort of a military dictatorship that’s not really supposed to be ruling when there isn’t military need, but nobody likes giving up their dictatorship just because it’s not needed.) Stragos poisons them with a long-acting poison for which only he has the antidote, and then sends them off to enact a wacky scheme, in which they are supposed to get pirates to attack Tal Verrar so that Tal Verrar will rally around its Archon and its navy, who are currently not #1 in the public sentiment and who the Priori are trying to cut down to size. Locke is unwilling to give up the Sinspire scheme over this, partly because he’d just hit the part of the scheme where he’d confessed to the owner of the Sinspire that he’d been cheating (this is part of a plan to gain them access to be able to do more stealing), and so he has to figure out a way to tie the two stories together so that he can continue playing both games. It is all very complicated.

Things are further complicated by the fact that Locke and Jean don’t know shit about boats or sailing or piracy or any of that stuff at all. Stragos furnishes them with a sailing master to help them fake it; however, the voyage is basically cursed from the beginning according to the prevailing nautical superstitions in this world, as they managed to set sail without any female officers or cats. It’s very, very bad luck not to have at least one female officer on board, and it is also terribly bad luck to not have any cats. Havoc ensues, and then awesome badass lady pirates ensue, and then more havoc ensues, and everything is great, at least if you’re a reader. (It sucks a lot if you’re Locke, as usual.)

Our main badass lady pirate captain in this book is Zamira Drakasha, former captain in the Syrune navy and a single mother of two: Paolo, a boy of about 4, and Cosetta, a girl of about 2. Her crew is filled with a colorful variety of other badass pirates, male and female, from a variety of nations, although none of them are quite as badass as Drakasha, otherwise they’d be captain. Drakasha runs her ship in an eminently sensible and occasionally-almost-democratic fashion (equal shares, etc.); I envy her administrative and organizational powers. She is also occasionally quite funny, particularly when hazing new crew members. Zamira is, in fact, so awesome that some sad little bigot once got all offended by her existing, prompting this glorious smackdown. I could talk about what a great character Zamira is all day.

Zamira’s first mate, Ezri, a runaway noblewoman, is also pretty badass, and she develops a very adorable romance with Jean, and you know what, you guys, I don’t even want to tell you about all the awesome stuff she does, you’re gonna have to read it for yourself.

Another one of my (many) favorite characters on the pirate ship is Regal, a small black kitten with a drooly nose, who adopts Locke whether Locke likes it or not. Adopting Locke largely consists of sitting on his head when he’s trying to sleep and giving him lots of drooly kitty kisses. I related to this part as I have recently begun living with a cat again, and our cat is fond of climbing up on people’s chests and just sitting there, sticking her face in your face and occasionally kneading your collarbone with her front claws.

The end of the book seems to be setting up for Regal to continue to be a character in the third book, but I won’t actually find out for A WHOLE WEEK.

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